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Charles Bolden on the legacy of space shuttle Discovery

The head of NASA talks about the legacy of the space shuttle Discovery, piloting the mission that launched the Hubble Space telescope, and what’s next for human spaceflight.

The U.S. space agency NASA retired the space shuttle Discovery in March 2011, after 39 missions that sent hundreds of people into space. Charles Bolden is the head of NASA, and a former space shuttle commander who led four shuttle flights. He piloted the Discovery on perhaps its biggest science mission – the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. Administrator Bolden spoke with EarthSky’s Jorge Salazar about his memories and the legacy of the space shuttle, just hours after the Discovery’s final mission.

Charles Bolden

The space shuttle Discovery has been retired, after more that 5,000 orbits of Earth. What are your thoughts on the last Discovery mission?

I thought the last mission, STS-133, which we culminated on Wednesday [3/9/11] was just absolutely incredible. It was a flawless mission that had two spacewalks, the first of which completed the construction of the U.S. segment of the International Space Station and allowed us to put extra supplies onboard that will help the station continue to be functional through 2020.

We could not have had a more beautiful day the Kennedy Space Center for the landing, and the landing itself was flawless.

Would you talk about on space shuttle mission STS-31, which you piloted, that launched the Hubble Space telescope.

We deployed the Hubble Space Telescope in March-April of 1990. It was my second flight. There was a five person crew. Our commander was Air force Colonel Lauren Shriver. I was the pilot, or PLT, as we call it, our mission specialist #2. The primary arm operator, or remote manipulator system operator was Dr. Steve Holly, who was actually flying his third mission into space and had been a member of the crew of the inaugural flight of Discovery in August of 1984, which was a very interesting mission in and of itself.

Our two other mission specialists were Dr. Kathy Sullivan, who was America’s first woman to do a space walk, and Navy Captain Bruce McCandless, who was also an experienced spacewalker. He’d had flown the manned maneuvering unit and had done a number of historic things, but also was one of the people who had been with the Hubble Space Telescope since its inception.

It was an incredible mission, because all of us on the crew, and I think all of us on the Hubble Space Telescope team, had no idea what a difference the Hubble Space Telescope was going to make. We just knew in our gut that it was going to be a historic mission. It was going to leave an observatory in space that that was going to revolutionize the field of astronomy and the study of our universe.

One of the more memorable parts of the mission was deploy day, when we had to deal with what seemed like certain failure, when we pulled the space telescope out of its birth in the payload bay of the shuttle. It’s a huge instrument. It weighs about 25,000 pounds on Earth. It’s roughly 45 feet long and 15 feet in diameter, which made it just fit into the payload bay. So we went through a long, meticulous process of lifting it out of the payload bay with the shuttle’s remote manipulator system. That was supposed to take us a matter of simple minutes. But it took Dr. Steve Hawley and me a little bit more than an hour, because the arm performed in some ways slightly different than we had seen in our training. We finally got Hubble overhead, poised in position to start deploying its appendages. The high-gain antennas went out with no problem. the first solar array deployed with no problem. About 16 inches into the deployment of the second solar array, suddenly it stopped.

The irony of this was that in our very last full-scale simulation on Earth prior to the mission – this was the failure that had been put in by the simulation team. It required us to take Bruce McCandless and Kathy Sullivan, our two spacewalk crew members, and put them out into the payload bay, where they manually deployed the solar array. And here we were in real life, faced with the possibility of having to do that.

Long story short, we finally determined, toward the end of the day, that it was a software problem. A young engineer from the Goddard Spaceflight Center sent a signal to remove the effect of one of the software modules. The solar array deployed as it should have. And we finally released Hubble, but many hours after it was supposed to have been released. So that was my most vivid memory of the flight, although it was an incredible flight and left what is just an absolutely extraordinary observatory in its orbit in space.

What did it feel like to get Hubble into orbit?

We had a special feeling that we were a part of something that would be incredibly historic. At the time, though, we were just a normal, shuttle crew doing our job, trying to make sure that we got Hubble successfully and safely deployed and that we wouldn’t damage it in the process.

When we came back to Earth, since it was the ending of my second flight, and I was relatively well-accustomed to what re-entry was going to be like, it was as thrilling as ever. I got an opportunity to fly, just for a few seconds, before I gave the controls to Loren Shriver, the commander, who actually did the landing of Discovery. We landed at Edwards Air Force Base, as it was planned for us.

Prior to the Hubble launch, Discovery was the go-to spacecraft in NASA’s return to space, a couple of years after the Challenger disaster. What do you feel was on the line with this mission?

When Discovery flew STS-26, which was the first flight after Challenger, we all knew that we were running a risk. We had lost the shuttle due to a failure of the right-hand solid rocket booster, which had caused it to fall into the external tank and subsequently lead to the breaking up of the shuttle itself. We all felt confident, however, that over that 2.5 to three year time, working with industry, with a redesign of the solid rocket boosters, flying a totally new configuration, it would be a success.

But changing the way that we communicated within the agency was perhaps the biggest change. It wasn’t a mechanical change. It wasn’t a manufacturing process change. It was a change in the way that we operated and managed things inside the shuttle program, where we communicated much more openly. Everyone had a voice. And people spoke up when they saw something that they felt was wrong or not safe. So we were very confident that we were going to have a successful mission, and it did go off flawlessly.

NASA will retire the two last active shuttles, Endeavor and Atlantis, by mid-2011. People have asked EarthSky, what’s next?

What is next for NASA, in terms of human spaceflight immediately, is continued operation on the International Space Station, which has been approved for continued operation for the next nine years. The international community has agreed to a deadline of 2020. We’re trying to certify it to 2028.

So we continue to name American crews, who will join their international partners on the International Space Station at least through 2020. For the immediate future, they will travel to the International Space Station the way that they have been for the last few years, which is aboard a Soyuz spacecraft. And they will return to Earth aboard that same Soyuz spacecraft.

As quickly as we can, we will transition to transporting out American crewmembers aboard American-made commercial spacecraft for getting our crews to and from orbit. As we do that, we’ll also be developing a heavy-lift launch system and a multi-purpose crew vehicle that will enable us to continue our quest for exploration beyond low-Earth orbit. And this time we want to go beyond the moon, eventually to an asteroid in the mid 2020s, and during the 2030 timeframe actually have humans in the Martian system.

Why should humans should go to space?

The number one reason that I want to go to space is because it’s part of the nature of the human species. Humans always want to know what’s across the next mountain, or what’s beyond the ocean. And space is an ocean. It represents a challenge to us. It represents an opportunity for us to find things about which we did not know anything. Our most recent vision says, ‘we reach for new heights to reveal the unknown,’ so that what we do and learn will make life better for all humankind. So that’s why we come to work every day.

A more simplistic reason for why we should go to space is because there are countless things to be discovered that will make life better for us here back on Earth. This was demonstrated through the Apollo program, the shuttle program. Every time we expand human presence beyond Earth, we learn thing that make life better here.

The International Space Station is the anchor for our future exploration. It’s our new moon. And on the International Space Station, we will continue our efforts, both in science and technology exploration, where we’ll discover new things about the human body. But even more importantly, we’ll develop technologies and develop things like pharmaceutical products, that will make us a more vibrant nation, make us much more competitive in the international marketplace and help us to develop the types of technologies that will enable us to go beyond low-Earth orbit, back to the moon, onto an asteroid, and on to Mars, at some point.

What’s the most important thing you want people today to know about the space shuttle Discovery?

I would love for people to remember is that Discovery, as the workhorse of the fleet after the Challenger accident, enabled human beings to venture beyond the bounds of Earth and reach out and make discoveries that were far unseen before we began our venture into space.

Discovery was the vehicle on which many firsts occurred. It was the vehicle that carried the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. It was the vehicle in which we flew the first person of color to do a space walk, the first woman to be a pilot and then to be a commander, it was a vehicle that was full of firsts. But what was even more important was it was a vehicle in which we followed up every one of those first with seconds and thirds and other things that continued to make our world better.

Jorge Salazar

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